Here’s some of what the Lonely Planet – Croatia chapter Split and Central Dalmatia has to say about Diocletian’s Palace:
“Experience life as it’s been lived for thousands of years in Diocletian’s
Palace, one of the world’s most imposing Roman remains. The mazelike streets of this buzzing quarter, the living heart and soul of Split, are chock-full of bars, shops and restaurants.
Getting lost in the labyrinth of narrow streets, passageways and courtyards is one of Croatia’s most enchanting experiences - and it’s small enough for you to find your way out again easily. Escape the palace walls for a drink on the marble-paved, palm-fringed Riva along the water’s edge.
Facing the harbour, Diocletian’s Palace is one of the most imposing Roman ruins in existence and where you’ll spend most of your time while in Split. Don’t expect a palace though, nor a museum – this is the city’s living heart, its labyrinthine streets packed with people, bars, shops and restaurants. Built as a military fortress, imperial residence and fortified town, the palace measures 215m from north to south and 180m east to west, altogether covering 38,700 sq metres.
Although the original structure has been added to continuously over the millennia, the alterations have only served to increase the allure of this fascinating site. The palace was built in the 4th century from lustrous white stone transported from the island of ??Brač, and?? construction lasted 10?? y??ears. Diocletian spared no expense, importing marble from Italy and Greece, and columns and sphinxes from Egypt.
Each wall has a gate at its centre, named after a metal: the Golden Gate on the north, Bronze Gate on the south, Silver Gate on the east and Iron Gate on the west. Between the eastern and western gates there’s a straight road, which separates the imperial residence on the southern side, with its staterooms and temples, from the northern side, once used by soldiers and servants.
There are 220 buildings within the palace boundaries, home to about 3,000 people. The narrow streets hide passageways and courtyards, some deserted and eerie, others thumping with music from bars and cafes, while the local residents hang out their washing overhead, kids play football amid the ancient walls, and grannies sit in their windows watching the action below.
This picturesque colonnaded ancient Roman courtyard (or peristyle) lies at the very heart of Diocletian’s Palace. In summer you can almost be guaranteed a pair of strapping local lads dressed as legionaries adding to the scene. Notice the black-granite sphinx sitting between the columns near the cathedral; dating from the 15th century BC, it was one of several imported from Egypt when the palace was constructed.
At the southern end of Peristil, above the basement stairs, is the vestibule, a grand and cavernous domed room, open to the sky, which was once the formal entrance to the imperial apartments. If you’re lucky, you might come across a klapa group here, taking advantage of the acoustics for an a cappella performance. Beyond the vestibule and curving around behind the cathedral are the ruins of various Roman structures, including the imperial dining hall and a bathhouse.
Few visitors to Dalmatia will leave without at some point being mesmerised by the dulcet tones of a klapa song. This a cappella tradition involves a bunch of burly men in a circle, singing tearjerkers about love, betrayal, patriotism, ??death, beauty and other life-affirming subjects in honeyed multitonal harmonies. In Split, the best place to catch a klapa group doing its thing is the Vestibule the emperor’s circular foyer on the south side of the Peristil square within the palace walls.
Gregorius of Nin Statue - this gargantuan statue is one of the defining images of Split. The 10th-century Croatian bishop Gregorius of Nin fought for the right to use old Croatian in liturgical services. Notice that his left big toe has been polished to a shine – it’s said that rubbing the toe brings good luck and guarantees that you’ll come back to Split.”
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
I’ve never been one to get too excited about ruins. In fact, the first time I was in Tunisia in the early 1970s, I didn’t even bother to go to Carthage to see the ruins there. I’ve always preferred to see people living in the old cities and towns, managing to make the most of dealing with old buildings and making it work for themselves. For that reason, Greece wasn’t too high on my list until we’d seen a lot of Asia and South America first.
When we were in Rome, we enjoyed the streets of the city and many of the famous tourist sites, but when we peered over the railings and looked down at the remains of the Forum, I was underwhelmed, and so was Anil. We gave it a miss and instead walked across the Tiber and visited the Trastevere district, south of Vatican City. When we finally did get to Athens, we were glad that we had waited as long as we had, because efforts were being made to reconstruct much of the Parthenon and the Acropolis Museum had recently opened, both giving us a much better idea of what the structures looked like in their heyday.
So, you can imagine my surprise and delight when we walked through the outdoor fruit and vegetable market and came to the ruins of one of the outer walls of Diocletian’s Palace and found that this World Heritage Site was a living museum, not just the remains of yet another Roman Emperor’s cushy digs. Long after he shed his mortal coil, refugees made homeless by yet another attack on their coastal town, fled to the ruins of the palace and used the stone rubble to build new homes within the still-standing walls. I read that many of today’s residents are descended from those migrants.
Our AirBnB hostess Nina strongly suggested that we take a guided tour of the Palace because there is so much history within its walls and trained guides are very good at filling out the details. It would have been great to hire her but as a professional, her fees were beyond our budget. It would have made sense if we were on a two-week trip to Croatia, but we were seeing three countries is seven weeks and we just couldn’t splash out on a personalized tour.
Instead, we joined a small group tour that started at the peristil, the large Roman-era courtyard that lies at the heart of the Palace. We were assigned a guide who happened to be a history student and given the option of a one-hour tour, or if we wanted to learn about areas just outside the original walls, we could stay for up to two hours. We had the time, and the interest, so took the full-meal deal.
Our guide spoke excellent English and was exceedingly tall. I stood on a low stone wall and my shoulders were still lower than his. He gave us some background information on the Emperor Diocletian, and then off we went to explore the various areas of the former palace and learn how it has changed over the intervening centuries. After the first hour, we stepped outside the walls on the northern side and he pointed out how more recent conquerors had built fortifications to expand their hold over the buildings constructed outside the original walls.
At some point in history, the western wall of the palace was almost completely dismantled in order for the city to spill out towards the Marjan hill that provided some degree of protection from attacks in the past. We saw a still-functioning aqueduct that brings water from the northern hills right up to the entrance at the northern gate. As we walked through the streets to the west of the palace, our noses were accosted by a foul smell very near the outdoor fish market.
I knew at once it wasn’t the smell of fish, and it wasn’t just because the market was closed that day. No, it was a smell more like rotten eggs, and I knew at once it was the odour that emanates from a sulphur hot spring. Sure enough, our guide explained that the large building, decorated with elaborate Austro-Hungarian-style sculptures on the exterior, houses a traditional bath house that has existed on the site for just short of two thousand years. It’s not a part of town that I would ever choose to live in.
By the time our tour was finished we were beginning to feel quite hungry despite the fact that it was only shortly after noon, a little early for Croatians to be eating their afternoon meal. We asked our guide to recommend a restaurant nearby, and he directed us to a splendid one, tucked inside a beautiful courtyard. It was a little pricey, but we decided to splurge a little instead of eating the typical local cuisine, and though the restaurant wasn’t quite ready for us, they were only too happy to pour us each a glass of local red wine.
I got quite a kick out of the name, and logo for the restaurant. The name Mazzgoon means mule in English – and the slogan on the place mats was ‘stubbornly different’. I search on the meaning of the name says ‘the mule is a symbol of the hard field working, stone breaking, heavy carrying past time that Split, and Dalmatia (the beautiful Croatian coastal region) had gone through.”
I’ve loved donkeys (and mules too I guess) ever since I spent a year living and working in the Sudan after I taught school in West Africa on the early 1970s. A friend from home met up with me in Morocco and we travelled around the continent for a year and a half before I came home and met Anil in Edmonton. As it turns out, our daughter’s husband Geoff adores donkeys too, so I took some photos of the restaurant’s signs and menus to send to him.
It was a heavy lunch and we decided to take a hike up the Marjan hill and into the forest park on the top to see the stunning views over the city and the port. It was a great way to wear off some of the calories from the wonderful lunch and the tasty burek (spinach and cheese filled pastries) that we’d been having for breakfast and snacks during our stay in the Balkans.